| 10:25 AM EST

Piston Engines Running Out of Gas?

In recent months Britain, France and India all have announced plans to gradually phase out gasoline- and diesel-powered engines, and other countries are heading in the same direction.
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In recent months Britain, France and India all have announced plans to gradually phase out gasoline- and diesel-powered engines, and other countries are heading in the same direction. The moves, which aim to curb air pollution and tailpipe emissions linked to global climate change, seem to signal a death knell for internal combustion engines (ICEs). But the process will take time—India’s ban won’t fully take effect until 2030 and Britain and France’s prohibitions trail that target by a decade—during which piston powerplants will continue to play a significant role in upcoming vehicles.

In fact, several speakers at the Center for Automotive Research’s annual Management Briefing Seminars (MBS) held in early August in Traverse City, Mich., suggested there’s plenty of life left in ICEs—at least for the next decade. They point out that gasoline and diesel engines still account for about 97% of global new vehicle sales and that the rate would be even higher if not for government regulations and tax incentives favoring hybrids and full-electric vehicles.

“Electrification will play a significant role in the future, but that doesn’t mean the death of the IC engine,” Toyota’s Ben Schlimme told MBS attendees. Schlimme, powertrain executive program manager-Advanced Planning and Research, Toyota North America, touted the new 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine in the 2018 Camry that boasts a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rating of 41 mpg, while generating 206 hp.

Mazda, which is partnering with Toyota on electric vehicle systems, is even more bullish on ICEs. “The foreseeable future will use the internal-combustion engine as its main motive source, so that’s where the bulk of our engineering focus has been placed,” Robert Davis, senior vice president-special assignments-Mazda North American, said during his presentation. He says Mazda’s SkyActiv engines have achieved a 30% fleet efficiency advantage over those of other automakers since 2001. Adding automatic stop-start capability, regenerative braking, hybridization and other emerging technologies will provide additional gains, he notes.

Mazda also is developing a next-generation homogeneous-charge-compression-ignition (HCCI) system that combines aspects of a gasoline and diesel engine. The carmaker plans to launch the technology in a production vehicle in 2019, which would be the world’s first such application. HCCI promises to be as much as 30% more fuel efficient than a conventional gasoline system.

“There’s a reason we have a billion of these (ICE) vehicles on the road. They’re durable, the infrastructure’s in place to service and support them and consumers know how to use them,” adds Eric Fedewa, senior manager of global market intelligence for Eaton Vehicle Group. And he believes there’s the opportunity for more breakthroughs even as the industry increases investments on electric and hybrid technology.

While such advances bode well for the immediate future, ICE’s long-term outlook is bleak. Most automakers and suppliers have accelerated their plans for EVs in recent years. Volvo notably has pledged that all of its models will have some form of electrification by 2020. Volkswagen, meanwhile, plans to launch 30 new electric and plug-in hybrid models by 2025 as the company tries to distance itself from the diesel emissions cheater scandal that came to light two years ago.

In addition to plans to eventually ban piston-powered vehicles, several countries have set targets for electric car sales. The list includes Austria, China, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Korea and Spain. China, which is the world’s largest vehicle market, also accounts for about 40% of EV sales. To date, carmakers cumulatively have sold more than 1 million electrified vehicles in China, including some 800,000 EVs.

Declaring a “green revolution in transport,” Britain Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, says the government wants nearly every car and van on the country’s roads to have zero emissions by 2050. To jumpstart the effort the country will provide £255 million ($332 million) in funding for local governments to take near-term action, such as retrofitting buses with electrified motors, smoothing traffic flow and cracking down on pollution cheaters.

As part of a renewed commitment to the Paris climate accord, France will provide incentives to coax car owners to scrap gasoline-powered cars built before 2001 and any diesel that is more than 20 years old. France also proposes to end oil and gas exploration within its territories, eliminate all coal-fired power plants by 2022 and encourage homeowners to install their own energy generators. Paris and several other major European cities also are implementing or studying their own diesel bans.

Norway, which already is one of the largest EV markets in the world with 40% of new vehicles sold there last year equipped with the green technology, has even more ambitious goals for the future. While stopping short from an outright ban of piston engines, the country’s latest four-year plan calls for 10% lower carbon dioxide emissions allowances than the rest of Europe.